The Best TV Shows of 2015
Peak TV. Peak TV, Peak TV, Peak TV.
Learn the name well, for it is the chilling sound of your doom. Or rather, mine, as I join the hundreds of TV critics desperate to cobble down thousands of hours of 2015 programming (about a quarter of which I imagine folks actually have time to watch) into an easily-digestible Top 10 format. Woe is me. Woe is peak.
As anyone foolish enough to scale these particular cliffs will attest, so much of the year’s best TV offerings will end up lost by the wayside all the same, or worse, overlooked until a rigid list has already formed in place. I don’t actually believe any working human could assemble the time or drive to scour every corner of the small (yet increasingly silver) screen, nor should the absence of any particular series be seen as a slight on its worthiness.
Regardless of any series’ absence here, I welled, like the rest of Parks and Recreation fans at Leslie Knope’s final goodbye, marveled at the majesty of Hannibal’s Red Dragon, hurled obscenities at Colin Farrell’s True Detective mustache, and moreso when he looked weird without it. I winced, at The Americans’ creative use of a suitcase. I too, am uncertain what Poldark is.
All of this is to say that if you haven’t realized by now, Top 10’s are at best a subjective pursuit, and most serving of the TV and movies that gave us all something to talk about, or opened perspective on a new way to tell familiar stories. Join my descent into madness, then, as I present to you ScreenCrush’s Best TV of 2015 (according to me, anyway), for which SPOILER WARNINGS should be stated at least once.
10. The 100
Not to spoil your fun, but The CW’s The 100 stands as the only network series to have made this list, and “network” questionably so at that. All the same, what started in 2014 as a seemingly quick cash-in on the YA post-apocalypse craze has quietly evolved into one of the most unrelenting survival dramas on television, chock full of more commitment and world-building than ten seasons of The Walking Dead could muster, let alone six.
Granted, the most recent season began in 2014, the latter half of Season 2 pushed the tale of teenagers hurled into a potentially uninhabitable Earth toward a multi-faceted engine of life, love, and sci-fi lore cramming Battlestar Galactica, LOST and The Hunger Games into one beautiful ball. Doing away with its requisite teen love triangles, The 100 pushes the boundaries of good sci-fi in a landscape afraid to utter the word, never holding back on its characters making life-or-death, even genocidal decisions, with real consequences, and laced with production value and design that put half the movies out there to shame.
We wouldn’t dream of spoiling Season 3 just yet, but if the trailer is any indication, The CW has only scratched the surface of its sci-fi powerhouse.
9. BoJack Horseman
If there’s a running theme of depression’s unlikely humor permeating this list – so be it – and may BoJack Horseman serve as its nexus. Crudely drawn, and occasionally ill-thought out (an entire episode devoted to explaining why some anthropomorphic animals could still serve as food) BoJack quietly transformed itself from an absurdist riff on Will Arnett playing up Hollywood cynicism, to an inescapably warm look at the depths of depression.
Even shooting his dream biopic, Arnett’s BoJack covets the allure of paths not taken, whether career or in past love (the latter culminating in one of the more uncomfortable pairings of 2015, and all this from a series with Keith Olbermann voicing himself as a talking whale). Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg never once loses sight of BoJack’s deep-seated insecurities, despite layering in some of the best recurring and visual gags this side of Arrested Development and The Simpsons combined.
Season 2 in particular made better use of its ensemble cast, including the addition of Lisa Kudrow as an owl TV executive decades removed from pop culture, yet still simultaneously thriving, and elaborate cameos for everyone from Daniel Radcliffe, to Serial creator Sarah Koenig.
8. The Jinx
“What the hell did I do? Killed ‘em all, of course.”
Those eleven words sparked a firestorm ending to a format that, by definition, has no real conclusion. The true crime format titillates and captures watercooler gossip in a manner increasingly lost to the scripted series, but one director Andrew Jarecki expertly manipulated (sometimes too expertly) to frame the tale of eternally suspicious millionaire Robert Durst, and his many alleged misdeeds.
The inclusion of Durst himself to shed light on some of his more outlandish acts put HBO’s The Jinx a few notches above other true crime tales, also illuminating one of the most fascinating figures of 2015, for good or ill. Durst’s dead-eyed stares and memorable mannerisms made for good conversation, but what really put The Jinx over the mark was the chilling nature of Durst’s decades-long escapes, and the very real implications going forward.
TV this immediate, this engrossing, this unsettling, comes along but once a decade.
7. You’re the Worst
From ho-hum pilot to critical staple, few comedies in TV history count themselves capable of what You’re the Worst has achieved in only two short seasons. Not only did the first season illuminate some of TV’s most sharply acerbic characters to date without losing the real humanity at its center, so too did Season 2 double down with a descent into depression that most dramas fail to capture so accurately.
Better yet, the recent Season 2 finale can attest that creator Stephen Falk actively invests in challenging a TV status quo, even by keeping things the same. Cliché sitcoms would see Jimmy and Gretchen (or their endlessly adorable counterparts Edgar and Dorothy) accepting imminent breakups, where “The Heart is a Dumb Dumb” offered a very real alternative in allowing fights to strengthen, rather than sever a worthwhile paring.
And where Aya Cash’s rich, affecting portrayal of Gretchen’s worsening depression might strain less secure comedies, You’re the Worst never once wavers in the wealth of humor to be mined from every exchange of self-involvement: Kether Donahue’s Lindsay remains an acerbically ignorant delight, while increased focus on supporting characters like Sam and Vernon cement You’re the Worst as an ensemble for the ages.
6. Master of None
Louie, and Seinfeld before have already built shrines, let alone stages worthy of the comedian auteur. Hell, even Rob Schneider thinks he has a hand in it. It’s exactly that kind of familiarity that made Parks and Rec alum, standup, and all-around comedy mogul Aziz Ansari’s Netflix vehicle Master of None that much more surprisingly needed.
Rather than self-indulgently rely on the perils of love in a twenty-something urban world (though Master still mines a depressing honesty in and around impeccable SNL alum Noel Wells), the series mined racial, generational and gender-related issues with a microscopic lens many other comedies dare not gaze. Both “Parents” and “Indians on TV” (the former of which most heavily featured Ansari’s real-life parents) easily establish themselves as all-time classics, while the as-yet-unrenewed finale promises only to go bolder with a much-deserved Season 2.
That, and Paro. And pretty much anything delivered by Eric Wareheim. Or Colin Salmon. Stop me anytime, really.
5. Mr. Robot
Context is a tricky mistress, in that it becomes difficult to reconcile the surprising depth and cinematic edge of something like Mr. Robot with its origins on USA, previously home to smiling, colorful takes on everything from burned beach bum spies, to … burned beach bum doctors. Moreover, a series with such telling roots in Fight Club and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has no business feeling as original as it does, a gift to television all its own.
From the borderline-obsessive lower-third camera angle, to its unflinching emphasis on Elliot’s loneliness (complete with sopping, sniveling tears from Rami Malek’s alien eyes), Mr. Robot gave us a fascinatingly complex view into the antisocial and the unfulfilled, simultaneously layering twist upon twist to compensate beats when writer Sam Esmail seemingly tipped his hand.
Season 2 has a mountain of work ahead, to follow the same revelatory trajectory as its predecessor, but the first year will stand alone as one of TV’s biggest surprises for years to come.
4. Jessica Jones
Marvel had a tough act to follow after the success of Daredevil – not just to avoid sophomore slump in a grittier corner of the cinematic universe we’d explored once before – but also in doing so with a relatively unknown character who herself eschewed most aspects of what we think of in a superhero narrative. Miracle of miracles, they didn’t try to follow the same rules, and subsequently crafted the most poignant hero of Marvel’s decade-long experiment yet: a deeply-layered, and often horrifying tale of empowerment in the face of tragedy.
There was little doubt Krysten Ritter could handle the caustic indifference of Jessica Jones, but thirteen hours gave all involved a chance to take Jessica through highs and lows, from depression, to sex, love and the occasional triumph. Add to that one of Marvel’s most memorable villains (admittedly culling from a pool of two, or three) in David Tennant’s Kilgrave, a terrifyingly subdued baddie whose inner justifications and entitlement ranked far more resonantly with real-world issues than any Dark Elf or genocidal automaton.
Jones took the greatest risk in pushing furthest from its Marvel namesake (hell, they barely even reference the universe around them), but ended up so much more compelling by all involved, including an incredible supporting cast (with enough layers for the next run), the rare breakthrough from superheroics to essential drama.
Like another as-yet-unnamed item on this list, Fargo Season 2 faced the impossible task of recapturing lightning in a bottle, weaving an all-new tale of homespun murder and mayhem, and without disrupting continuity of 2014’s best drama. Adding atop that the notion of a period piece, with even less overt connection to the Coen brothers film that inspired it all seemed daunting, though the recent finale only capped creator Noah Hawley’s masterful command of Fargo’s dark and uncompromisingly comic tone in any setting.
Not only did Fargo Season 2 succeed in endearing us to an entirely new set of characters (including Patrick Wilson’s tangentially familiar take on Keith Carradine’s more stoic Lou) with effervescent performances from Kirsten Dunst to Nick Offerman, but also embraced its temporal rollback without losing an ominous familiarity at its core.
Best of all, direction and editing all expertly reflected the shift in status quo, adding new audio-visual language like spilt-screen and period rock, all blended with the paranoia and establishment fears that made outlandish elements like UFOS seem not only at home – but organic with uncertain times.
We already know Season 3 will return us to the present day, but if any of Season 2’s stylistic flair should carry over, Noah Hawley may yet pull off the hat trick.
Discomfort remains a staple of the TV experience, whether by cringe comedy, or the unease preceding ever dramatic revelation, no matter how contrived. Where Amazon’s Transparent often succeeds is to find its characters in an almost-perpetual state of transition – a discomfort that makes even tenuous family bonds all the more essential.
Take the Pfefferman children – one alienated by an implosive marriage, now seeking punishment at the hands of a weekly dominatrix; another an inescapable music snob now twice-failed in his efforts to fill a fathering void; and the other a late-in-life bloom – both in sexuality and academia –and seemingly having to choose between the two. All challenging people in their own right, yet Transparent Season 2 finds catharsis not in some grand resolution to their self-involved plights, but rather the simple spontaneity of the trio sharing an underwater tea party; a return to simple childhood tethers of an otherwise fractured family.
All of that goes without mentioning Jeffrey Tambor’s revelatory Maura, who herself stumbles past the initial confusion of a gender transition, and straight into guilt-laden realizations of past misogyny, and the complications of privilege that infiltrate any community fighting for recognition, no matter how forward-thinking. All the while, the second run of Amazon’s take on gender exploration weaves through a poignant history lesson of the elder Pfefferman matriarch’s journey to America, past the loss of her own trans brother, and all unbeknownst to any descendants now sharing the inherited trauma.
More than essential viewing for a TV landscape in desperate need of new perspectives, Transparent has become essential storytelling: generational, discomforting and unitive all at once.
1. The Leftovers
The Leftovers is impossible television. Impossible to explain, impossible to market, and impossible still for lasting as long as it has. And where Season 1 plumbed a depth of emotion and grief unrivaled by the most devastating of theatre experiences, Season 2 faced an impossible task in crafting an original story to follow Tom Perrotta’s original novel.
With it came a move from New York to Texas, and abdication of half the cast, yet The Leftovers remained the most affecting, spiritual and terrifying drama put to TV screens. Not only did Season 2 manage to sustain its mystery element while simultaneously pitching a lighter tone (uplifting theme song and all), but the second (and tragically penultimate) run saw creator Damon Lindelof at his best, giving over to the tragic inevitability of Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) struggling to embrace family in the wake of supernatural anger pulling him in every direction.
“International Assassin” in particular offered one of the more ambitious storytelling swings of 2015, let alone the last few years, a flight of fancy that never once detracted from the monumental task of establishing the show’s new cast, or our investment in the remaining Garveys.
Adding to that a tense, terrifying and ultimately heartfelt finale, The Leftovers Season 2 pulled off what so many of its inhabitants only dream of – genuine record of an honest-to-goodness miracle.